It was a pleasant outdoor dinner with friends. The discussion drifted to politics when the blunt comment was made, "conservatives are all motivated by greed."
The brashness of the generalization took me by surprise not least because the little dinner party included people who might tend toward a politically conservative orientation.
Since that conversation I decided to look into the related social research and I found my friend was right. And wrong.
In his research summary, Who Really Cares?, Syracuse University professor of public administration, Arthur Brooks, examined the relevant sociological data, exploring patterns of stinginess versus generosity as reflected by charitable giving and volunteering. He analyzed the connection of these patterns to a variety of factors, including one's political stance and also one's faith orientation.
Brooks concludes that the presence or absence of active religious faith is a much more pertinent predictor of greed or generosity than is one's politics. In one analysis, Brooks divided the population into four groups — political conservatives and liberals, each subdivided into groupings of those expressing religious faith and those claiming a non-faith, secular orientation.
Partially supporting my friend's contention regarding the greed of political conservatives, those conservatives who say they are not faith-oriented, don't pray and don't attend church or synagogue, indeed appear to be the most "greedy," least generous of the four groupings.
They are least likely to give to charity or do volunteer work. They are also less likely than those of the other groups to let someone in front of them in line, give up a seat on a bus, or even give directions to a stranger.
Political liberals who are similarly non-religious, however, run a close second in terms of eschewing charity or volunteer work.
By contrast people who pray regularly, participate in church or synagogue, and who report that they "devote a great deal of effort" to their spiritual lives are 42 percent more likely to give to charity than non-religious, secular people. The amount and income percentage of what they give also far outpaces that of secularists.
This holds true regardless of one's politics, though faith-based conservatives lead the way slightly in giving and volunteering.
This faith factor in charitable giving, overriding as it does one's political stance, may seem predictable since most people of faith donate to the religious and humanitarian causes of their spiritual communities.
However, even in addition to the charitable giving they do through their communities of worship, people of faith — regardless of their politics — are 10 percent more likely than non-religious people to donate to purely secular causes such as the United Way. They are also 21 percent more likely to volunteer for completely secular causes.
These distinctions hold true at all income levels though, ironically, the wealthy of all persuasions are less likely to give and most likely to cite as a reason, "we don't have enough."
The faith connection to generous behavior should not be surprising. The Jewish Old Testament drips with exhortations to care for the less fortunate.
"If you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted," says the prophet Isaiah, "then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you ..." (58:10-11). In the New Testament, Jesus largely equated authentic devotion to God with charitable service to one's fellow man (Matthew 25:31-40).
While faith-based readers may feel vindicated — and secular ones might be offended — by the research findings, it should be remembered that the data are only statistical generalizations. The findings may not individually apply to you or me.
Whether politically liberal or conservative, faith-oriented or secular, there's an easy way to determine whether we are implicated by the facts. We can review our bank account and time schedule over the last few years. If they don't reflect ongoing, sacrificial generosity and active service to our fellow man, perhaps we should reconsider the trajectory of our lives.
Jesus' statement, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," can be a pleasant platitude that rolls nicely off the tongue. But it's costly to quietly live it out in daily life and his words constitute both a promise and a challenge for each of us.
Those who are less fortunate don't benefit from our theoretical compassion, but only from our tangible sacrifice of money, time and effort.
Pastor Bob Levin serves at North County Community Church, 7410 Howdershell Road in Hazelwood. He can be reached at email@example.com.